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Wednesday, 20 November 2013 00:00

Fire in the landscape – still a burning question

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out natcornIt will likely take awhile for the smoke to clear after the Table Rock Fire near Linville Gorge in the Grandfather District of the Pisgah National Forest either burns out or is suppressed. The fire was first spotted Tuesday, Nov. 12 — the very same day that prescribed burns were scheduled in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. Those burns had been cancelled previous to the discovery of the wildfire due to high winds.

It hasn’t been confirmed, but some monitoring the fire believe it was caused by a campfire at the Table Rock Picnic Area that wasn’t completely extinguished. The Forest Service (USFS) is trying to contact a group that was camping at the picnic area the night before.

The winds that cancelled the prescribed burn scooped the Table Rock fire up and ran with it. It was estimated to cover about 40 acres when first discovered last Tuesday; by Thursday the USFS said 1,800 acres had burned and by early Monday (11/18) morning the acreage was estimated at nearly 2,300. 

One could say there was already a cloud of smoke hanging over the scheduled prescribed burns in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. While the USFS’s decision to use fire as a restoration tool in the Linville Gorge Wilderness and adjacent areas was greeted with support from local/regional conservation groups like Western North Carolina Alliance and Wild South, it was also met by concerted opposition from local groups like Friends of Linville Gorge and Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. Debates played out online, at various meetings and in local newspapers, but in the end, after public comment the USFS chose the fire alternative.

Then, before USFS personnel could light the first torch, fire, hotheaded as it is, took matters in its own hands. The debate about fire in the landscape is complicated, often contentious and if you are open-minded (not simply looking for a place to espouse your particular beliefs) thoroughly engrossing.

But the Table Rock Fire is not so abstract – it happened. It offers both sides the opportunity to document what fire means – to Linville Gorge and perhaps by extrapolation to the Southern Appalachians. Proponents of fire in the ecosystem get to monitor the burn and see if the kind of benefits they espouse – uptick in fire-adapted species and a healthier fire-adapted (oak-pine) ecosystem on appropriate sites appear post-fire. Those who oppose fire in the ecosystem will get to monitor the burn and see if the outcomes they predict — damage to ecosystems and waterways, destruction of scenic values, loss of animals and habitat and damage to local economies, etc., come to fruition as a result of the Table Rock fire. 

There area couple of caveats. Results need to be documented, not simply anecdotal observations. If you’re an avid hiker and one of your favorite trails was burned over and you go hike it next week and it’s charred and black instead of green, I don’t think that counts as destruction of scenic value — you need to hike that trail again next spring and next fall and the next summer to see if the forest you love is dead and gone or alive and regenerating, perhaps more diverse and even greener.

The other caveat is time. We humans are so biased when it comes to the concept of time that we can generally only think in terms of human generations. Go to Joyce Kilmer and rest your hand on the side of a 400-year-old poplar and think of the fires, storms and changes it has seen. Think of what forests once were and be patient.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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